By Augustine Batten, Senior Analyst, Russian Domestic Affairs Section
Analytical Topic: Russian military activities in the Arctic | Date: 11 April 2020
In the changing climate of our planet, the loss of the Arctic ice cap has increased the accessibility to resources located inside the Arctic Theater. The result of this change is that the Russian government, among other nations, including Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States, has taken an interest in the economic and military opportunities on the top of the world. In a push to control the region, the Russian government has taken a more aggressive approach in military innovation and expansion into the region over the past 30 years. It can be stated with moderate confidence that the Russian government will continue to push military advancements and its expansion in the Arctic Theater in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
When discussing Russian military activity in the Arctic Theater, it is important to understand both historical trends and current events. From the fall of the former Soviet Union to the present day, trends show an increased Russian military presence and interest in the Arctic Theater. Due to Russia already controlling a large portion of the Arctic, several islands in the region have seen an increase in military activity. In recent years, Russian military bases have been built, or have been renovated with new advancements in radar and surface-based conventional weapons. This in turn has created a Russian military sphere of control in the Arctic Theater, which has developed with minimal pushback from the global community. Recent news show that these trends are continuing with Russian military exercises and new instillations in the Arctic Theater.
On Wednesday, April 8, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) intercepted two Russian naval reconnaissance planes near Alaska in the Bering Strait. While the planes did not fly into either the United States or Canadian sovereign airspace the incident constitutes a statement by the Russian military that military exercises will continue despite the COVID-19 pandemic. It was reported that, “the Russian exercise comes as the [United States] Navy struggles with its readiness in the Pacific.”[i] It was additionally reported that information was released by Russia’s Defense Ministry on upcoming military exercises: “During the exercise, the crews of fighter-interceptors will also work out joint actions with bomber aircraft to defeat the forces of a mock enemy at sea, on land and in the air”[ii]. In addition to the continuation of military exercises, Jane’s Navy International reported that “S-300PS air-defense missile batteries have become operational at Russia’s newest military base in Tiksi, on the coast of the Laptev Sea […]. The role of the unit, which forms the Northern Fleet’s 3rd Air Defense Division, is to defend the airspace of the Russian Arctic and the area of Moscow’s unilaterally claimed Northern Sea Route”[iii]. These current events are important when explaining the actions of Russia during the Global Pandemic.
With 10,131 confirmed cases, 76 deaths, and 698 recovered patients[iv] in the country, Russia is now taking actions that show the spread of COVID-19 in the military is becoming an urgent priority. It has previously been reported that Russia’s Northern Fleet implemented quarantine measures for potential exposures to the COVID-19 virus on a nuclear submarine and floating repair dock. With the introduction of additional exercises, including chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) equipment training; it can be speculated that Russia may be working to keep its military at near 100 percent combat readiness. It can also be speculated that Russia may be continuing to conduct military exercises as a show of strength to maintain its sphere of influence in the Arctic region.
In recapping the long-term purpose of this report, it can be stated with moderate confidence that the Russian government will continue to push military advancements and expansion in the Arctic Theater in 2020. Though the current pressure and toll of COVID-19 on the Russian population is increasing, the probability of Russian military activity or presence decreasing in the Arctic Theater is low. With the preventative measures that the Russian government implemented early on during the outbreak of COVID-19; the impact of the virus is much lower when compared to much of the Western world —though the possibility of this being due to limited testing must be taken into consideration. This leaves resources available to the Russian military to continue conducting operations in the northern latitudes.
- [i] Roeder, Tom. “NORAD Intercepts Snooping Russians – despite Coronavirus.” Colorado Springs Gazette, 9 Apr. 2020, gazette.com/military/norad-intercepts-snooping-russians-despite-coronavirus/article_846e7a54-7a6e-11ea-b427-a7d215fb1a80.html.
- [ii] Roeder, Tom. “NORAD Intercepts Snooping Russians – despite Coronavirus.” Colorado Springs Gazette, 9 Apr. 2020, gazette.com/military/norad-intercepts-snooping-russians-despite-coronavirus/article_846e7a54-7a6e-11ea-b427-a7d215fb1a80.html.
- [iii] Jones, Bruce, et al. “Russia Activates Air Defence Missile System at New Arctic Base.” Russia Activates Air Defence Missile System at New Arctic Base | Jane’s 360, 9 Apr. 2020, www.janes.com/article/95450/russia-activates-air-defence-missile-system-at-new-arctic-base.
- [iv] “Coronavirus Cases.” Worldometer. Accessed March 26, 2020.